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Jewellery by Artists: From Picasso to Koons, an exhibition organised by the culture and art portal

Destinations · Asia · tajikistan · Dushanbe · Essence ·


Author: Anothertravelguide.com0 COMMENTS


After the unexpected torrential rains of June, the River Varzob, now brownish-grey in colour, is roaring furiously; the locals say it will take time for the raging waters to calm down. They claim Dushanbe has not seen a June like this in ten years: black thunderclouds literally ripped apart by white downpours. The mountain mudslides brought about by the incessant rain flooded the city's streets. As witnessed by the deep grooves lining the streets, nature is in the habit of reminding of its presence every now and then - in spite of the increasingly ambitious growth of the Tajikistani capital. Dushanbe is located in the middle of the Gissar Valley in South Tajikistan, approximately 812 metres above the sea level - on the confluence of the Rivers Varzob and Luchob; the two rivers merge their waters to transform into the River Dushanbinka as they enter the city's territory. The snowy peaks of the Gissar Range flanks Dushanbe in the North and the East. Symbolically, the city has four gates opening to the four cardinal directions. A popular legend has it that, at the time when God was dividing the earth to distribute among the mortals, the ruler of Tajikistan overslept and arrived late when the last piece was already taken. However, God took pity on him and sliced off a piece of Paradise. And that is why the country has the best of all four seasons, from hot summers to generous autumns and snow-white winters. Nevertheless, there is a darker side to this life in Paradise. Geographically, the location of the city is no Happy Valley: during the above mentioned torrential rains, the mountain landslides and mudslides affect the city in a very unpleasant manner. Arriving on the first truly sunny Saturday after the heavy rainfalls, however, the city seems one huge celebration of life. The parks and cafes are jam-packed and buzzing; a local band is performing on a makeshift stage in the heart of the city; the mouth-watering aroma of freshly grilled shashliks fills the air. Most women wear the traditional costume - long cotton, silk or velvet tunics and trousers - every day; the vibrant patterns transform them into flowers, and the city itself seems to have burst into bloom: a metropolis and, at the same time, a summer meadow at the height of the summer. These two very different sensations merge into an intangible whole in Dushanbe - without a trace of exaggerated coyness, at that. Women, sunny and welcoming at first glance, avert their face instantly at the sight of a camera. Dushanbe is one of those cities you have to unlock with a special key to get really close and intimate. You are free to wander along its streets as a stranger, watching the city life as a series of moving pictures. In an hour's time, it may reveal itself as a completely different place should you happen to meet an acquaintance of an acquaintance - even someone you have never met before. Hospitality is sacred in Tajikistan. „Either we welcome guests or we don't" - there is no third way about it: from greeting you at 4 am at the airport to seeing you off at dawn, that's as simple as breathing here.
While the mercury has risen above the + 37º C mark, the proximity of mountains keeps the heat within the boundaries of the bearable: the air is dry and light. It does not smell of the pavement, carrying a refreshing hint of the mountains instead - the crisp whiff is brought to the valley every now and then by the wind.
Dushanbe, a young city, is just 80 - it's useless to come here looking for anything like the grand historical heritage of Samarkand and Bukhar, the pillars of Central Asia. Most of the city's architecture dates from the Soviet era. Admittedly, the question of the genuine age of Dushanbe remains open: according to the archaeologists, people may have lived here as long ago as two thousand years ago. The first documented mention of Dushanbe dates from 1676 when it was a small village at the junction of the caravan roads connecting the Gissar Valley with Bukhar and Samarkand, as well as with the Pamir and Afghanistan. Dushanbe translates as Monday from Tajiki - that's because the marketplace was traditionally active on Mondays here. As recently as in the early 1900s, Dushanbe was just a small kishlak („village" in Tajiki) with the population of a couple of hundreds. The town is said to have been lit by a single kerosene lamp - strategically placed at the marketplace. A somewhat serious town-planning did not start by 1929 when the Tajik Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed. That's when the country's first power station was erected on the bank of the River Varzoba, providing the city with electricity. 1940 saw the unveiling of one of the most prestigious buildings in the city, the Dushanbe Opera and Ballet Theatre.
Originally, the region developed as a centre of the cotton and silk industries, after thousands of people were brought to the capital from every corner of the country - including, during the Stalin era, thousands of ethnic Germans whose descendants are still among the residents of Dushanbe. Today the city counts a population of over 600 000; its main artery is the 12-kilometre Rudaki Avenue stretching through Dushanbe from the North to the South. The street was named after the legendary Persian poet Abu Abdullah Rudaki who lived and worked in the late 800s - early 900s, during the Samanid dynasty. All of the most significant objects in Dushanbe are located here, including Rokhat, the most famous and oldest of the city's chaikhanas - still one of the best dining places in the city. Rudaki Avenue is also home to the art gallery owned by Sukhrov, one of the most visible figures of the Tajikistani contemporary art scene. As often as not, you will meet the owner here - contributing to the feeling that Dushanbe, while definitely a capital with claims to the status of a metropolis, is a very compact city after all. According to the locals, they are likely to recognise most of the people they meet walking through the city centre - at least as familiar faces if not actual acquaintances.

Marketplace and the President's Gifts
There are two must-see places in Dushanbe: a local market and National Museum. Like any self-respecting Asian city, Dushanbe boasts a number of markets; the most compact and colourful among them is definitely Zeleniy Bazaar where you can buy literally everything, from flatbreads and a huge variety of nuts, raisins and fruit (including the orange lemons unique to the region) to items of the national costume. A separate pavilion, completely dedicated to traditional clothing, is stacked full of fabric bales: a genuine feast for the eyes.
Before your visit to the National Museum, stop by a grocery and treat yourself to the Plombir SSSR ice cream in a red plastic cup with a yellow sickle and hammer - produced by the local dairy factory, it is yellow, very rich and incredibly delicious! Actually, you may find the National Museum quite a sweet morsel itself - you will be hard pressed to find something similar anywhere in the world. The three floors of the permanent exhibition present a concise in-your-face account of the history of mankind, tracing the development of the human species from the primitive man to the President of Tajikistan. Everything in between is covered by bits and pieces of culture and traditional applied arts; the local fauna and flora; posters in the Socialist Realist style; a visualisation of the medieval prison (Zindan) cell; illustrations to Soviet-era children's literature; contemporary art,; contemporary photography; samples of mineral deposits; a separate stand dedicated to aluminium, featuring bowls, basins and milk-cans; cinema; photography - just the right amount of everything to create a superficial general idea of the regional accomplishments and the diversity of life, while avoiding information overload. And then you find yourself on the third floor: lifeless as a stone sculpture, a painted human-size likeness of Emomalii Rahmon, the President of the country, is watching you from a canvas opposite the landing; the suit-clad dignitary is posing against the backdrop of a waterfall. The whole of the third floor is dedicated to the President: several roomfuls of photographs feature Rahmon, captured from every possible angle, shaking hands with leaders of every possible country, including the President of the neighbouring Uzbekistan. The locals ironically refer to the picture as unique - considering the current strained relations between the two countries. The bickering over natural resources (as Uzbekistan raises the gas prices, Tajikistan responds by promising to harness the water resources of Amu Darya; the river, born in the territory of Tajikistan, is the main source of life for the neighbouring country's cotton plantations) has been going on for several years now; the border between the two countries is said to be planted with mines - scores of innocent animals wandering in the dangerous territory find their death here every year. A separate room is dedicated exclusively to the gifts and awards bestowed upon the President - a genuine tribute to the cult of the leader; a museum attendant sits in the corner embroidering a ribbon traditionally used to adorn the trouser hems of the national costume. Admittedly, unlike Rahmon's Uzbek and Turkmen counterparts, the President of Tajikistan recently ordered to remove all of his portraits previously displayed in the streets. The construction work of the long awaited Presidential Palace (or Palace of Nations) - a majestic building flanked by a huge garden - has entered its final stages; incidentally, the location used to be the site of a psychiatric hospital. The Central Park opposite the new symbol of the city is one of the most popular recreational spots among the locals; its former iron fence has been replaced by a row of fountains, pleasantly refreshing on a hot summer day and, for this reason, very popular among mums with toddlers. The fountains are lit up at night, and there is not a free seat on the park benches. The only thing reminding unceremoniously of the post-Soviet reality is the uncovered black manhole on the gravel path opposite the Palace of Nations.

Law on Animals and Weddings
The President's name is also linked with two seriously outlandish decrees which have noticeably changed the daily life of the city. A few years ago, the residents of Dushanbe were forbidden to keep livestock and chicken at their homes - previously a common thing, particularly in the suburbs; a cow or a donkey in the city park is said to have been an ordinary sight. The other decree was adopted as recently as a year ago; it is a law regulating one of the most sacred traditions of Tajikistani life: weddings. While it was not uncommon for a wedding to last a week and the number of guests sometimes reached two thousand, today the wedding celebrations have to stick to the limits of two days and no more than 150 guests. A special commission was formed to control the number of guests; since most weddings take place at a restaurant, this is definitely no laughing matter. Depending on the affluence of the newlyweds, the fine can amount to USD 1500 and more and must be paid by both parties - the restaurant and the revellers. The original law is said to have been an attempt of minimising social inequality; however, the locals quip that the President must have predicted the current economic crisis well in advance...

The Empty Hyatt and the Aga Khan Foundation
Palace of Nations and the recently opened Hyatt Hotel are two of the most visible new buildings in the city. The hotel is located on the outskirts of the city centre - a laconic glass-dominated building with a stunning view of the surrounding mountain ranges and the Presidential Palace. The elegant decor is a play on Tajik ethnic motifs; the rooms, even the standard ones, are comparatively spacious; admittedly, the rates (approaching USD 300, VAT and breakfast inclusive - you will be charged extra for internet access) seem obscenely high compared to the average standard of living in the country where the monthly wages of the majority range from USD 25 to 35 - with the exception of the one per cent of the population that could be described as „affluent" and „very wealthy". For the time being, though, the Hyatt Hotel seems eerily empty; the huge windows haven't been cleaned in a while and, at least in direct sunlight, appear indecently dusty for a hotel of this level. The terrace restaurant with its Oriental-style lounge sofas also stays half-empty even at night. According to the locals, the luxury hotel lark is currently a matter of fashion in Dushanbe - hardly a well-researched business. They say Tashkent was hit by the fad some time ago; now it's the turn of Dushanbe to „step on the same rake", so to speak. Most of the city's new five-star hotels - and those still in the works - are hoping for a tourist industry boom in the region; tourism as a serious business is still in its initial stages; according to a local media report, Tajikistan was visited by a meagre 30,000 tourists in 2008. While much thought has been given to ways of attracting foreign visitors in the recent years, there is no shortage of amusing little stories like the story of the new - and genuinely fabulous - traveller's guide to Tajikistan released in 2008; among other things, the introduction to the book states that the views of the authors may not represent the official standpoint of the government. As a result, the guide cannot be found at any of the city's bookstores; you will have to find your own sneaky way of getting hold of the book. It is pretty much the same with a book on Dushanbe, recommended by the locals as the best one around: the bookstore carries two copies and cannot be persuaded to part with one of them - not for all the money in the world: it has become all but a bibliographic rarity. However, things are definitely not standing still in the city: construction work on one of the most ambitious projects of recent times, the Ismaili Cultural Centre, is in its final stages opposite the Hyatt Hotel: the new building featuring a cinema, an exhibition hall and a mosque is scheduled to open its door this autumn. It will be the world's third largest centre for Ismaili culture, one of the top ones being located in London. The centre is financed by the Aga Khan Foundation, one of the most influential international private organisations. The projects - completed and ongoing - financed by the foundation in Tajikistan are estimated to have cost over USD 100 million. Ismailism, one of the denominations of Shia Islam, dates back to the times of Fatimah, Muhammad's daughter, although Ismailites are said to have made themselves known in the 10th century in North Africa. Today followers of the Ismaili faith, totalling 20 million, are scattered all over the globe: from Europe and the United States to Middle east, Central Asia and South Africa. The current leader of the movement is the Geneva-based billionaire Aga Khan IV. Historically the title of Aga Khan - the Supreme Ruler - was awarded to the Ismaili leader by the Persian Sheikh in 1817. History books always place a special emphasis on the amicable relationship between Aga Khan I and the British government; he went as far as promoting the British interests in the region, having moved to India in 1842 and residing in Bombey. Aga Khan III, the grandfather of Aga Khan IV, enjoyed the best education available in the West and became a personal friend to King Edward IV. It was he who founded a charity movement to provide help for the poorest Asian nations. After his death in 1957, Aga Khan IV carries on the work started by his grandfather. Aga Khan IV, born in 1936 in Geneva, graduated from Harvard University and has been awarded an honorary degree by a number of universities in Pakistan, Canada, Great Britain and USA. In 1967, Aga Khan IV founded a private charity foundation based in Geneva. The foundation deals with supporting Ismailite communities worldwide and helping their home countries raise the general standard of life. Education as the basis of a successful development of any country is one of the top priorities of the foundation. During the tenure of Aga Khan IV, a number of hospitals, schools and cultural institutions, open to anyone regardless of their race or religion, have been opened all over the world with the support of the foundation. One of the schools supported by the foundation is located in the Pamiri town of Khorog. For the monthly tuition fee of USD 20, it offers an English syllabus plus a course in a third language. After graduating from the school, the students can continue their education at Western universities with the help of the foundation; their only obligation is to come home once the studies have been completed and spend at least three years working in Khorog - as teachers or in any other capacity. The foundation has taken care of bringing electricity to a number of Pamiri mountain villages, the local grid functioning much better than the one in Dushanbe, the capital of the country, where blackouts are hardly a rarity.

The most unique flight trip in the world
Khorog, the capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous province is located 2060 metres above the sea level, not far from the border with Afghanistan - approximately a 10-hour (or 525-kilometre) drive from Dushanbe. You can also get there by air, and the approximately 40-minute flight is considered one of the most unique trips in the world. Besides, flights are often cancelled due to the unpredictable weather. The landing takes place in a ravine, the plane tilting on one side - the manoeuvre cannot be performed any other way. There is no alternative option except making an over 100-kilometre detour above the mountains. In fifty years, however, only two planes have crashed there, one of them - during the civil war when the plane was so full it could not take off. The first flight to Khorugh took place in 1929, two years before the town was reached by the first car. Today Khorog is the cultural, educational and economical centre of the region; people speak their own - Pamiri - language. Unlike the rest of Tajikistan dominated by Sunni Muslims, since the 11th century, most of the population of the Pamiri region are Ismaili. It only seems logical, therefore, that Khorog has been chosen by the Aga Khan Foundation as one of the sites of the new international University of Central Asia. „I share a birthday with His Highness. The best birthday gift to myself is always a donation to the foundation," says a local Khorog-born businesman - an Ismaili. The city is also home to the Pamir Botanical Garden, one of the highest in the world - located two kilometres from the city centre; a regional factory manufacturing precious and semi-precious stones is located in the village of Vozma, 15 kilometres from Khorog. Pamir has also always been famous for the region's gold and silver mines. The city of Khorog is situated along the Pamir Highway (which becomes almost wayless in places), midway between Dushanbe and the Kyrgyz city of Osh. In the South West of the country, in the Pamir Mountains, there is a place where two borders - with China and Afghanistan - converge; a third one, the Pakistani border, is not far away either. To be more precise, Tajikistan is separated from Pakistan by a 15 to 65-kilometre wide strip of land controlled by the Afghani. And that's only one of the Pamir routes that make the trip worthwhile. Mountains occupy 93 per cent of the Tajikistani territory: most of it is located 3000 metres above sea level. Tajikistan is also home to three of the legendary seven-thousanders: the Ismoil Somoni Peak, formerly known as Communism Peak (7495m), Ibn Sina Peak or Lenin Peak (7134) and Peak Korzhenevskaya; mountaineers who have conquered these 7-thousanders, along with Pobeda Peak or Jengish Chokusu and Khan Tengri, can claim the prestigious Snow Leopard Trophy.
After a few days in Dushanbe you inevitably start to think of it as one of the most welcoming places on earth; however, here's the deal with Tajikistan: the further into mountains you go, the more hospitable people you encounter. These are sensations impossible to describe - it is something you have to experience for yourself. At least once in your lifetime! Incidentally, one of the best times to visit the Pamir is September when it is comparatively warm, the weather is more or less constant and every possible fruit is in season. They say the Pamiri fruit taste differently than those grown in the Dushanbe valley.

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